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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — State Sen. Mike Bennett says a Sarasota judge gave him a second chance when he was a teen, and now he wants to give other juvenile offenders a similar opportunity.
The Bradenton Republican, his voice cracking with emotion, on Thursday recalled the ultimatum he got: Join the military or else.
Bennett enlisted in the Navy the next day and said that saved his life.
He told his story to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee just before joining other panel members to unanimously approve a bill that would give juvenile offenders a chance to get lengthy adult sentences shortened.
"I was one of these kids," Bennett said. "Kids make mistakes and sometime they get a second opportunity."
Dubbed the "Second Chance for Children Act," the bill (SB 92) would let judges reduce sentences of 10 or more years for non-homicide crimes once a juvenile is at least 25 years old.
That chance would be offered only to inmates who have met certain criteria including having a high school diploma or general education development certificate and a clean prison disciplinary record for at least three years.
Judges would have to consider such criteria as an offender's age, maturity and psychological development at the time of the crime, behavior while in custody, remorse and the wishes of victims in deciding whether to reduce sentences.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, also would help Florida comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The decision last year said juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without any chance of parole for non-homicide crimes. Florida has abolished parole.
The 5-4 ruling came in the case of a Jacksonville youth, Terrance Graham, now 24, who was implicated in armed robberies when he was 16 and 17.
Florida holds 219 inmates serving life terms for committing crimes other than homicide when they were 17 or under. That's more than 70 percent of the total nationally.
Bennett said he had made frequent appearances before then-Judge Lynn Silvertooth for such offenses as underage drinking, fighting and "general hell-raising" before the jurist said he'd had enough.
"He suggested I was running with the wrong crowd, and I was," Bennett said in an interview. "All of the guys I ran with either ended up dead or in jail or overdosed."
Bennett said he didn't wait to find out what alternative the judge had in mind, first visiting with a Marine Corps recruiter who told him there'd be a wait of at least three weeks.
"The judge had given me only two weeks to get out of town," Bennett recalled.
The Navy recruiter, though, said he could put him on a bus the next morning.
Bennett didn't hear from Silvertooth again until he was elected to the Senate in 2002.
"He called me his greatest save," Bennett said.
The bill has only one more committee stop before it can come to a floor vote after the Legislature convenes on Jan. 10. A similar bill (HB 5) has not yet had a committee hearing in the House.